10 Essentials of Safe Winter Hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire
by David Lottman
No matter the season, hiking in the White Mountains can be rewarding on many levels. Covered with a blanket of snow, our mountains and trails come alive with unmatched beauty, less crowds, and a sense of tranquility difficult to match during other seasons. But with it comes an added level of preparedness that is necessary as weather conditions change quickly in the colder months. Here in this article, we’ve adapted the 10 hiking essentials for winter hiking in the Whites.
AN EVOLVING LIST FOR BEING PREPARED
The seasons change, leaves fall, and the forests become barren. Snow starts to fall and hikers often hang up their boots for the season. Perhaps the thought of hiking deep into the forests of the Whites during the cold, winter months can be intimidating. Perhaps it’s the lack of winter gear and preparedness? Sure, staying inside next to the fire with a big cup of cocoa sounds appealing on a chilly, winter morning, but once you experience the peace and beauty of miles and miles of untouched trails surrounded by snow-covered trees, you may change your mind about winter hiking.
There are many reasons why three-season hikers can become drawn to winter hiking. Those prepared to hike in winter are treated with less congested trails and campsites. Familiar landscapes take on a new majesty when covered in rime, snow, and ice. Good snow coverage can actually make many of our rocky White Mountain trails easier to travel on. Mosquitoes, black flies, and ticks are a distant memory. If you’ve been thinking of extending your hiking season to year-round, we’ve assembled some advice to help with that transition.
The following is a review of the classic “10 Essentials” adapted to winter considerations; plus recommended equipment specific to above-treeline travel in the White Mountains.
(New trail etiquette recommendations during COVID times see this article)
The first item on most recommended gear lists is often the most neglected. While smartphone navigation has become more reliable over the years, luck favors the prepared, and carrying a paper map is a wise move. Cell phone batteries can be drained surprisingly fast in cold temperatures. In addition to carrying a paper map, you might wish to carry one that is more detailed than your typical AMC trails map, especially if you wish to travel off trail above treeline. You can make custom maps on the free website, www.caltopo.com, and print them at home or at a local printer.
A compass is another essential that the smartphone might try to emulate—but a real compass does not require relatively warm temperatures to keep working. We’ve used our compass in whiteout conditions on Mount Washington in -18° F temps to find the Alpine Garden Trail, measure slope angles when managing avalanche hazard, and settle arguments about “which mountain is that?” We recommend a model like the Sunnto A-10 for basic navigation and the Suunto MC-2 for those who want to really refine their off-trail navigation skills.
Winter brings much shorter days than summer hiking, so we often find ourselves starting or finishing a big hike in the dark. For that reason, we prefer a slightly brighter, longer lasting headlamp than what we carry in the summer months. The Petzl Actik and Myo are two favorite models. Using lithium batteries (or Petzl’s rechargeable Core lithium-ion battery) in the winter is a good idea, as they perform much better than alkaline batteries in sub-zero temps.
Staying hydrated in the winter can be a challenge. To start off on the right foot, try to “pre-hydrate” the night before a hike and even during the drive to the trailhead. I then only carry one 32-ounce Nalgene and a 22-ounce thermos of tea, noodle soup, or hot Jell-O mix. Hydration bladders, while great during the other three seasons, have an inherent weakness in the winter. Even the insulated ones are very prone to freezing in the tube, making it very difficult to get any more water out of the bladder. For this reason, we prefer the reliability of standard wide mouth Nalgene bottles. I forego popular water bottle “parkas” and prefer to carry the bottle inside my pack close to my back. For longer trips, a lightweight stove is required, as melting snow and boiling water is the best method for treatment. A small bottle of iodine carried in the first aid kit is also useful in areas where you find running, unfrozen water. Pump style filters are very prone to freezing and not recommended for winter use.
For winter hiking, you should plan on consuming 2,000 to 3,000 more calories than you normally eat. It is often joked that there is no such thing as a diet when winter hiking. Like staying hydrated in the winter, staying well fed is often a challenge when it is really cold out there. Many energy bars become jaw breaking bricks in winter temperatures. We recommend bringing foods you actually want to eat. A local favorite is leftover Flatbread pizza. Other great options include summer sausage, a tasty block of cheese (cut these up at home for easier on-trail snacking), chili or soup in a Hydro Flask food thermos, smoked salmon, hummus, and baked goods. Pre-made wraps make eating with gloves on easy.
First Aid Kit
Every group should carry a first aid kit, the contents of which can vary based on the trip and the level of medical training you possess. The AMK .7 First Aid kit is a good start. For winter, we add a half-dozen chemical hand warmers. We also like to stuff an extra ultra-light headlamp, perhaps the Petzl e+LITE or ZIPKA, in our first aid kit as a spare.
Voices, even when yelling, do not carry far, especially in dense trees or adverse weather. A whistle can be helpful for keeping groups together, and invaluable for signaling distress. A dedicated rescue whistle is a nice option, but we also like how most backpack manufacturers are using sternum strap buckles that have built in whistles; check to see if your pack already has one!
Mainly used for cutting mole-skin or spreading some hummus, a small knife lives inside our first aid kit.
Firestarter/Bivy Sack/Sleeping Bag
Waterproof matches in a small container or a quality butane lighter and some fire-starting tabs are lightweight insurance if you end up spending an unexpected night out. Starting a fire in the winter can be extremely challenging and should only be used in an emergency. More practical advice would be to carry an ultralight bivy sack on every trip; and consider a lightweight summer sleeping bag on group trips. Combined, these two items only weigh about three pounds, but can make a huge difference in comfort and safety should someone suffer a minor injury like a broken ankle far from the road.
For winter trips, your clothing should be comprised of synthetics and wool. Cotton is avoided. Whole books have been written on this topic, but the basics involve donning quick-drying wicking layers, then insulating layers, such as fleece or a light synthetic insulated jacket, then windproof water-resistant, soft-shell pants and jacket. Waterproof shell layers should be carried to deal with high winds or mixed precipitation. An over-sized insulated parka with an insulated hood is highly recommended. Keep this close to the top of your pack so you can throw it on during short food/water breaks. Ideally, you should be able to wear all your clothing items together (though you shouldn’t start the hike like that, as you will quickly overheat).
Sun and Wind Protection
Sunblock can be applied at home before you drive to the trailhead. I rarely carry it in my pack for sub-zero day trips. UV reflection off the snow on nice days can quickly give you a sunburn. Apply an SPF 30+ and do not neglect under your chin, nose, and ears. Clothing is the best protection, and a lightweight “buff” offers a nice level of both sun and wind protection, while not making you overheat on the ascent. A neoprene windproof face mask should also be carried if heading above treeline. Sunglasses to protect your eyes from wind and snow-blindness are ideal, as are goggles if venturing above treeline in high winds.
Additional Equipment for Above-TreeLine Travel
Depending on the route and the snow conditions, you might need up to three types of traction. For early season hikes on well-travelled trails, often we only need some basic traction, such as Kahtoola Microspikes. If we are going above treeline or attempting a steeper trail, actual mountaineering crampons should be used. Attempting a steep, classic winter climb like Lionhead on Mount Washington with just Microspikes is ill advised. Trips deep into the wilderness or after large storms will require snowshoes. While many snowshoe models offer some aggressive crampons, these are not a substitute for a mountaineering crampon on semi-technical routes like Lion Head. Finally, if heading onto steep snow slopes (30 degrees or more) one should carry a mountaineering axe and practice self-arresting with it. There are many outfitters in the area that offer mountaineering skills courses that cover this skill.
Increased cell phone coverage in the mountains has made cell phones more valuable for summoning assistance or letting a family member know you are just running a little late. However, there has also been an increase in frivolous rescues because of this connectivity. If you choose to carry a cell phone, you should also have everything already mentioned on this list. To conserve battery, the best practice is to either keep the phone off or in airplane mode. Store it in a secure pocket in one of your inner layers to keep it warm.
Anytime we head into the mountains, we should be checking a mountain weather forecast. We are fortunate to have the Mount Washington Observatory on the summit of the Northeast’s highest peak publishing Higher Summits Forecast by 5 a.m. everyday. There is absolutely no excuse to head into the White Mountains without carefully looking at this 72-hour forecast. For multi-day trips, we carry some small FRS radios that can easily pick up the NOAA broadcast for updated forecasts.
A basic 16-hour Wilderness First Aid course is a great idea for anyone who hikes in the White Mountains. This is a great investment that will help in recognizing and effectively treating common winter ailments like hypothermia and frostbite to splinting a fractured wrist after a slip. Visit SOLO, or The Kane Schools, to find a course that works for you.
There is quite a bit of avalanche terrain in the White Mountains, including the oldest avalanche forecasting center in the country, Mount Washington Avalanche Center (MWAC). While most of the U.S. Forest Service’s efforts have been focused on forecasting the two main ravines on the east side of Mount Washington, the forecast area has now been expanded to the greater Presidential Range. Generally, any slope over 30 degrees is subject to avalanching when dangerous snow conditions exist.
At first, hiking in the winter can seem quite intimidating. Common concerns regarding staying warm, following trails, and dealing with mundane tasks like peeing with so many layers of clothing on can cause summer hikers to delay giving it a go. We want to encourage you to take that next step with the advice in this article, and perhaps a course or clinic with an established organization. The AMC runs a ton of winter skills clinics out of both their Highland Center and Pinkham Notch visitor centers.
Local guide services, like those mentioned below, generally teach more technical skills like ice axe and crampon use, winter mountaineering above treeline, avalanche awareness, and more!
You’ve likely already gotten hooked on the mountains if this magazine is in your hand, now it’s time to get hooked on the mountains when they are covered in snow.
For additional information, contact one of the following local guiding services.
David Lottmann –
Redline Guiding –
Chauvin Guides International –
Synnott Mountain Guides –
Mooney Mountain Guides –
Mountain Life International –
Mountain Shadow Adventures –
The Alpine Women Collective
The Alpine Women Collective is a hiking group focused on encouraging and empowering women to seek adventure through group hikes, camping trips, and retreats. Cait Bourgault and Sarah McLean started off as a pair of best friends who loved hiking together, and one day decided to invite more women to join in on the trails. Since then, they’ve hiked with hundreds of women, all over Maine, New Hampshire, and beyond. They plan and embark on introductory- to intermediate-level outdoor adventures year round, and emphasize experiencing winter in the White Mountains.
The Whites continually provide ample ground to facilitate first-time winter hikes, along with a place to grow and expand an inclusive crew of adventurous, welcoming women.
Check them out online at www.alpinewomencollective.com.